On Art in North Korea

The North Korean Culture Industry, Pyongyang as One Giant Art Museum, Kim Jong Il’s Men, Colorful Mosaics, the Kim Il Sung Prize, the People’s Artist Commendation, Loyalty, a Small Tapestry, Internal Enemies, a Dozen Smiling Blue- and White Collar Workers, the Ideal Citizen.

At the time Kim Jong Il was given his first prominent position, Kim Il Sung’s ironclad rule was through the government of the DPRK, which possessed all the ruling powers—not the Workers’ Party. The OGD was merely an instrument of the Workers’ Party, which was, at the time, just one of many bureaucratic institutions in the country. In a cunning ploy that would unravel slowly over the course of the next decade, Kim Jong Il would elevate the authority of the OGD by arguing that North Korean society needed the Party to play a stronger role in upholding the command and ruling stature of the Great Leader Kim Il Sung. Eventually, the power to appoint personnel was shifted away from the government and to the OGD, run by Kim Jong Il. Among its activities, the OGD was tasked with carrying out surveillance on all of the Great Leader’s supposed internal enemies. This surveillance became so rampant that it culminated in Kim Il Sung himself essentially falling under surveillance by the OGD. By that point, Kim Jong Il and his cohorts in the OGD had taken over all the prominent positions, transforming the Workers’ Party into the most prominent political organ in the DPRK. From 1980, it was no longer Kim Il Sung’s government that actually ran things but the Workers’ Party under Kim Jong Il, whose own deification soon commenced. Kim Il Sung was still officially the “Great Leader” to North Koreans and the outside world. But in actuality, all of the real power lay with the son. In this dual structure, Kim Il Sung’s men, who were by now of advanced age, were given the most prestigious titles—but that’s all they were: titles. They wielded very little power. The real power was held by men in the OGD: Kim Jong Il’s men.

This is why there is so much mystique behind the political structure of the Hermit Kingdom—why so few outsiders are able to understand it. It has its roots in Kim Jong Il’s division of powers, which enabled his usurpation of the throne. His pruning would culminate shortly after his father’s death in 1994, with the purging of all his father’s loyalists, banning them and their progeny from Workers’ Party membership, and the banishment of several thousand prominent families from Pyongyang. Clearly, a new sort of loyalty was now required.

Walking or driving through the streets of Pyongyang, it becomes quickly apparent that the DPRK has more public art than any other country in the world. In place of the visual pollution of advertising that clutters so many cities in the twenty-first century, the Pyongyang streets are filled with colorful posters, murals, and mosaics—all made by hand, extolling the virtues of leader, party, country. The art we see and the cultural system attached to it tell us a lot about how the nation functions, how it views itself, and how art serves the ongoing project of engineering the ideal citizen and society.

But who makes all this stuff? What is it like to be an artist in North Korea? Certainly the classical model of artists nurturing their private visions solitarily in their studios, churning out works to be sold through the commercial gallery system, does not exist here. The very notion would likely be regarded as classically bourgeois, reactionary, capitalistic. Art, rather, has more utilitarian value than it does in the West and other places: that of propaganda. It is meant to educate, to uphold the system’s values, through conveying clear and easily legible messages, not to titillate or provoke contemplation through ambiguity. As Kim Jong Il wrote in one of his numberless treatises on aesthetics: “There is no such thing as pure art disconnected from the lives of the people.”

If you’re lucky, you get discovered early on. Talented children in all of the visual and performing arts are scouted across the country on a yearly basis. The good ones might end up at their local schoolchildren’s palace, where their talents are nurtured in after-school lessons; the very best are sent to Pyongyang for the country’s most rigorous art training. (Thanks to Kim Jong Il’s obsession with the arts, talent is one of the few means by which a person might overcome poor Songbun—though this is by no means guaranteed.) The crème de la crème will attend the grandiose Manyongdae Schoolchildren’s Palace, renovated with bright, marbleized splendor in 2015, with departments for virtually every field in the arts, sciences, and athletics. Here, tourists and foreign dignitaries are customarily taken on tours to witness classes and rehearsals, culminating in spectacular performances where the country’s brightest little singers, dancers, acrobats, musicians, and actors showcase their craft with stunning perfection.

See You Again in Pyongyang: A Journey into Kim Jong Un’s North Korea.

Post-secondary school, after training for five years at one of the nation’s art academies, performers will be taken on at any number of theaters or bands, while visual artists will typically go on to employment at one of the art studios, the most venerated of which is Mansudae, which boasts around a thousand visual artists and four thousand assistants and administrative staff. Mansudae is where the huge statues of the Kims on Mansu Hill—and the hundreds of others elsewhere in the country—were produced. All of Pyongyang’s murals and mosaics are rendered here. And it is where, in the department of oil painting, the vast majority of the works showcased in the Korean Art Gallery on Kim Il Sung Square were painted. Once employed at an art studio, artists are given free rein to paint or sculpt anything they want. They have a monthly quantitative quota to fill, but subject matter and content are up to them. By that point, they are trusted, as they have already undergone the lifelong ideological training that is guaranteed to result in only correct images. Occasionally—or often, depending on the department and medium—a commission will come in that will require the talents of one artist (in the case of, say, an oil painting or small tapestry) or up to an entire department (for monumental sculptures or mosaics).

Successful artists work their way up the reward system. The highest commendation is People’s Artist, the second highest Merited Artist. There are only a couple hundred artists awarded with such designations. Most live in Pyongyang and are gifted with luxury housing for their families in a new high-rise facing the Taedong River and extra rations. The most successful might even win the Kim Il Sung Prize.

Artists live relatively charmed existences in the DPRK. They might be granted inspiration trips to idyllic locales in the countryside or, rarer, sojourn abroad. Artists work at their studios from Monday to Friday; on Saturdays, like everyone else, they are required to attend study sessions, where the theoretical writings of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il might be taught—a further extension of the Juche aesthetics they absorb during their studies at the art academy. Upon retirement, they may join the Songhwa Art Studio in Pyongyang, which holds its own exhibitions of members’ work.

There is, however, no star system among artists and writers like there is in the West. Rather, there are famous works. North Koreans, when asked about their favorite novels, can recite vivid plot summaries but most often won’t be able to tell you the author’s name. In art, the most iconographic painting is undoubtedly Chung Young Man’s Evening Glow at Kangsun Steelworks. The sky is alive with that fiery dawn glow, smoke spewing snakishly out of the factory towers above the glistening river. Never mind the content; Chung’s painting can be admired for color alone. Standing in front of the painting, Ms. Kwak tells us the story behind its creation: that its theme was suggested to the artist by Kim Jong Il personally. Full of inspiration, Chung set out for Nampo in search of scenes to paint. When he happened to catch a glimpse of the factory at the waning hour, he recalled the General’s advice and dutifully brought out his paints and a blank canvas and set to work.

Really, the whole city can be treated as one gigantic art museum. Look at the subways: the veins of the city. The stations one extended gallery. Each designed by a different artist meditating upon a theme based on the station’s name: Red Star, Glory, Revolution, Liberation.

The palatial architecture, with its marble pillars and arches and extravagant chandeliers, will be familiar to anyone who’s taken a subway in Moscow. But it is the colorful mosaics, made collectively by the Mansudae Art Studio, that are worth dwelling on as you await your train’s arrival. At Prosperity Station, there’s The Great Leader Kim Il Sung Among Workers stretching across the rear wall, with the middle-aged maestro marching against the smoking factory chimneys of a golden sunset, his open trench coat flapping in the wind, as a dozen happy, smiling blue- and white-collar workers follow close on his trail. The murals of Construction Station dramatize the rebuilding of Pyongyang after the war, while Glory Station’s centerpiece is the spiritual birthplace of the Korean nation, Mount Paekdu, the birthplace, according to propaganda, of Kim Jong Il. Outside the country, it is known that his actual birthplace was a Siberian army camp, where his father was in exile.

In the West, Kim Jong Il has long been mocked as an emblem of high camp with his pompadour hairdo, fur-collared jacket, oversize designer shades, and long-hemmed pants obscuring those custom-made pointy high heels he wore to obscure his challenged verticality. In a West where not so long ago, racist, late colonial Dr. No caricatures were evoked to propagandize an evil Asian other—and arguably still filter into our characterizations of the Chinese and North Koreans—Kim Jong Il seemed to fit the part. A wizened gook Liberace with blood on his fingers and world domination on the brain.

Defectors often claim that Kim Jong Il in actuality enjoyed far less popular support than his father. Others nevertheless express admiration for what they characterize as his artistic genius. Even though he never made any art himself, his wizardry behind the entire North Korean culture industry is well known. Those who knew him personally have said that he had the personality of a temperamental artist rather than a politician. Simultaneous with his role at the OGD, Jong Il was also given another position: head of the Propaganda and Agitation Department (PAD).

There’s a good reason why Kim Il Sung allowed his son to wrest power away from his hands: he didn’t notice it happening. As head of the PAD, Jong Il accelerated the expansion of his father’s personality cult in a full-on artistic assault. The elder Kim was in turn bedazzled by the city being erected around him—the city of him. Everywhere he went, he would see his likeness projected. Even when he himself did not appear in a painting or sculpture or film, it was made clear, through a dedicatory plaque, speech, or text, that the monumental work was indeed about him. Inspired by him. A promulgation of his greatness.

Clearly, Jong Il recognized early on his father’s weakness for flattery. His role at the PAD allowed him to indulge that weakness to a distracting degree. In philosophy, Jong Il adapted the nascent idea of Juche, or Subject Thought, as one commentator has translated it, only to recenter it upon the idea of the Suryong, the Great Leader. “Man is the master of all things”: this is how the Juche idea is often summarized, leading to the erroneous belief that Juche is some sort of crudely sloganified existentialism. But actually, the Juche doctrine states quite clearly that all people are in need of a Great Leader for guidance. And in Korea, that Great Leader could only be one man.

Under Kim Jong Il, Juche thought morphed into Kimilsungism, wherein the Great Leader guides the Party—which by 1973 had come to mean Kim Jong Il himself—and the Party then guides the people. The cultification of Kim Il Sung—in politics, philosophy, art and culture, and everyday life—was deployed as a weapon to further Kim Jong Il’s own powers, to the extent that they eventually overcame his father’s, even while his father remained the de facto ruler until his death in 1994.

The above is an excerpt from See You Again in Pyongyang: A Journey into Kim Jong Un’s North Korea, (Hachette Books), by Travis Jeppesen

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